Union Station Pulls into the Holidays

Late last month, travelers and patrons at Downtown’s Union Station were treated to a holiday-themed surprise. John Legend, one of a handful of entertainers to achieve the EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards) held a previously unannounced concert at the transportation hub.

It was sudden — the concert was announced on the same day — with many of the visitors at the station stumbling onto it during their daily commutes or rushing to the complex on short notice. All of the traditional holiday trappings were on hand. Santa Claus hats were handed out, while Legend sang some holiday standards like “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “What Christmas Means to Me,” on a stage designed to replicate a winter wonderland.

The show was the first part of a major series of holiday events and shows at Union Station, with live music, pop-ups and other free activities plans through the late fall and early winter.

Cultural events are nothing new for Union Station. The transit hub regularly hosts live music and activities almost weekly, organized by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, who also own the site. But its winter holiday events have continued to grow over the past three years, according to Ken Pratt, Metro’s Deputy Executive Officer for Real Estate, Overseeing Union Station. Last year’s events, including tree lightings and concerts, attracted around 2,000 people per event, and so far the station is on track to nearly double that mark this year.

“They’re ice breaker type of events,” Pratt said. “They’re wonderful opportunities for families and kids to come out and have fun. You know, with holiday music, people really get into it.”

Festivities started in full on Nov. 21, with the annual tree-lighting event in the station’s south patio, accompanied with live music. The massive 40-foot-tall tree is set up throughout the season.

The centerpiece of this year’s programming is the Cocoa Concerts. The series started with the tree lighting and continues with the Latin jazz quartet Conganas on Dec. 6, followed by the eclectic sounds of the Hi-Fi Honeydrops on Dec. 13. Heidi Zeller, senior manager for cultural programming with Metro Arts said that Metro Arts wanted to bring in local artists, and this year worked to showcase a diversity of styles, after feedback from audiences last year. Each band will be playing some of their own original music, but will also play their spins on holiday classics.

“It is a holiday concert series, so you’ll hear familiar tunes,” Zeller said. “We want people to get into the spirit.”

The free evening concerts are also paired with activities and snacks around the Christmas tree, including free hot cocoa — hence the name of the series — and visits from Santa Claus. Each evening will also feature different arts and crafts programs for kids.

This is the third year the station has hosted the holiday concerts, but Pratt said that they’ve been increasing the programming, putting more activities around the concerts. Part of it, he said, has been in response to feedback from the community over the last year.

The evening concerts feature a “Candy Cane Lane,” where individuals can take festive photos alongside a large “Candy Cane Queen.” A marshmallow-eating contest is also on the horizon for each concert with prizes available for the person who can put away the most marshmallows.

A portion of the schedule still remains in the dark. As of press time, Metro Arts has not publically announced who will perform at the third and final part of the series on Dec. 20.

The concerts are just the latest example of the arts coming to nontraditional venues in Downtown. Similar to Union Station, locations like The Bloc have set up large holiday campuses for visitors, while other shopping hubs like Row DTLA also have a slew of holiday pop-up events scheduled for the season.

Union Station is also in on the pop-up trend. The station is holding its annual holiday pop-up market this weekend, on Saturday, Dec. 7. Starting at 10 a.m., the south patio will host 40 local venders, food trucks, a beer and wine garden, and live music from the Top Shelf Brass Band and the Beverly Belles. The event is free to attend. There will also be performances by the Bob Baker Marionette Theater, formerly of Downtown Los Angeles.

Pratt said that Union Station is still an active transit facility first and foremost, and the staff utilizes the station’s various spaces to avoid disrupting the flow of travelers. Most activities are set up in the south patio, away from the main flow of daily operations. In the event of rain, events can be relocated into Union Station’s ticketing hall.

That said, the activations are aimed at both audiences who attend specifically for the concerts and commerce, and for travelers who might simply stumble upon them, Zeller said.

She said that in the past two years more people are intentionally heading to the station to check out the events, but a good portion of the crowd at each activity is still made up of people who happen to be at the station between stops on a journey.

And Pratt noted that it’s not hard for Angelenos to check out the holiday programming. After all, he said, Union Station is a transit hub connecting much of the city.

The next Cocoa Concert is on Friday, Dec. 6 at Union Station, 800 N. Alameda St. or unionstationla.com.

nslayton@timespublications.com.